The Old Pasture Oak
by BJ Omanson
It had always been there, crowning the knoll
for as long as the boy could remember
and even longer than that, for as long
as his father and even his old grandfather
could quite recall. He had heard it said
that the oak was already old when the first
New Englanders and Kentuckians came
to erect their cabins on Spoon River
in the 1830s– and, earlier still,
that bands of Pottawatomi hunters
had stopped to rest in its shade, or so
his grandfather claimed and, as certain proof,
produced a small arrowhead from a drawer
in his roll-top desk and related how
he had found it tucked in the old oak’s roots
when he was a lad himself. Which was proof
enough for the boy, never mind how the father
rolled his eyes. And for his own part,
the boy more than half believed the oak
was as old as the earth itself, with roots
that clasped the eroded outcrop like claws
and limbs that almost encompassed the clouds.
Whenever he managed to steal away,
he would follow a path along Indian Creek
to a sloping pasture that led to the oak
and, clambering up the knoll, he would curl
in a hollow among the roots and watch
as the cattle languidly grazed in the sun
or reclined to ruminate in the shade.
He might lie in a pastoral reverie
through the whole of an August afternoon,
whenever he thought he wouldn’t be missed
and where few were likely to look for him.
He would drift in and out of consciousness
as he watched the thunderheads cross the sky,
dreaming of the earth as it once had been
when the Pottawatomi hunted there,
and dreaming, as well, of an earlier time
when mammoths and bison had crossed the plain
like the flowing of grasses beneath the wind.
And so it transpired that, gradually,
over months and years, the rooted old oak
so infused the thoughts and dreams of the boy
in accordance with some archaic bond
of men and trees, that he slowly assumed
characteristics of the old tree itself,
becoming stubborn and deeply attached
to a single place, steadfast alike
in sun and in storm and set in his ways,
partial to rain, indifferent to cold,
inclined to the moon and the dark of night.
And when, at the end of his life, he returned
to that peaceful knoll, long after the farm
had been passed along to some stranger’s son
who lived in another state altogether,
the oak stood in ruin, its mighty trunk
hollowed out and its once ennobled crown
entirely shattered by midsummer storms
and lightning strikes, a mere wreck of itself.
The old man stopped, as he generally did
while he was still some distance away
and surveyed the knoll that rose up ahead.
The oak still lived, its bleakly disfigured
and broken stature encircled in leaves.
A single crow on its uppermost snag
alerted the country with three hoarse caws,
then silently flew away to the north
toward a darkening wood. Within the oak’s
elipse of shadow, a solitary bull
interrupted his grazing to raise his head
and regard the intruder with cool disdain
before turning back to his grass again.
The old man leaned on his walking stick
and kept his distance, observing the slow
dispersal of amber across the land
until all of the far-off clustered farms,
tree-lined fencerows and old sycamores
along Spoon River were starting to glow.
The old man was tired, his every joint ached
and he understood that the time had come
when he should be walking away. In the West,
as dusk was blurring the outermost fields,
the dying and truncated oak receded
into the shadowed past, disappearing
layer by layer, subsiding away
like a memory on the verge of sleep,
until only a ghostly trace remained
as a pale silhouette against the sky.
“The Old Pasture Oak” is from
Stark County Poems by BJ Omanson (Monongahela Books, 2020).